Read Melindy and the Lynxes of The Backwoodsmen , free online book, by Charles G. D. Roberts, on ReadCentral.com.

The deep, slow-gathering snows of mid-February had buried away every stump in the pasture lot and muffled from sight all the zigzag fences of the little lonely clearing.  The Settlement road was simply smoothed out of existence.  The log cabin, with its low roof and one chimney, seemed half sunken in the snow which piled itself over the lower panes of its three tiny windows.

The log barn, and the lean-to, which served as wood-shed and wagon-house, showed little more than the black edges of their snow-covered roofs over the glittering and gently billowing white expanse.

In the middle of the yard the little well-house, shaped like the top of a “grandfather’s clock,” carried a thick, white, crusted cap, and was encircled with a streaky, irregular mass of ice, which had gradually accumulated almost up to the brim of the watering-trough.  From the cabin door to the door of the barn, and over most of the yard space, but particularly in front of the sunward-facing lean-to, the snow was trodden down and littered with chips and straw.

Here in the mocking sunshine huddled four white sheep, while half a dozen hens and a red Shanghai cock scratched in the litter beside them.  The low door of the barn was tightly closed to protect the cow and horse from the bitter cold-which the sheep, with their great fleeces, did not seem to mind.

Inside the cabin, where an old-fashioned, high-ovened kitchen stove, heated to the point where a dull red glow began to show itself in spots, kept the close air at summer temperature, a slim girl with fluffy, light hair and pale complexion stood by the table, vigorously mixing a batter of buckwheat flour for pancakes.  Her slender young arms were streaked with flour, as was her forehead also, from her frequent efforts to brush her hair out of her eyes by quick upward dashes of her forearm.

On the other side of the stove, so close to it that her rugged face was reddened by the heat, sat a massive old woman in a heavy rocking-chair, knitting.  She knitted impetuously, impatiently, as if resenting the employment of her vigorous old fingers upon so mild a task.

Through a clear space in one pane of the window beside her-a space where the heat within had triumphed over the frost without-she cast restless, keen eyes out across the yard to the place where the road, the one link between the cabin and the settlement, lay smothered from sight.

“It’s one week to-day, Melindy,” she announced in a voice of accusing indignation, “since there’s been a team got through; and it’s going to be another before they’ll get the road broke out!”

“Like as not, Granny,” responded the girl, beating the batter with an impatience that belied the cheerfulness of her tone.  “But what does it matter, anyway?  We’re all right here for a month!”

As she spoke, however, her eyes, too, gazed out wistfully over the buried road.  She was wearying for the sound of bells and for a drive into the Settlement.

Meanwhile, from the edge of the woods on the other side of the cabin, hidden from the keen eyes within by the roofs of the barn and the shed, came two great, grey, catlike beasts, creeping belly to the snow.

Their broad, soft-padded paws were like snow shoes, bearing them up on the wind-packed surface.  Their tufted ears stood straight up, alert for any unwonted sound.  Their absurd stub tails, not four inches long, and looking as if they had been bitten off, twitched with eagerness.  Their big round eyes, of a pale greenish yellow, and with the pupils narrowed to upright, threadlike black slits by the blinding glare, glanced warily from side to side with every step they took.

The lynxes had the keenest dislike to crossing the open pasture in this broad daylight, but they had been driven by hunger to the point where the customs and cautions of their wary kind are recklessly thrown aside.  Hunger had driven the pair to hunt together, in the hope of together pulling down game too powerful for one to master alone.  Hunger had overcome their savage aversion to the neighbourhood of man, and brought them out in the dark of night to prowl about the barn and sniff longingly the warm smell of the sheep, steaming through the cracks of the clumsy door.

Watching from under the snow-draped branches, they had observed that only in the daytime were the sheep let out from their safe shelter behind the clumsy door.  And now, forgetting everything but the fierce pangs that urged them, the two savage beasts came straight down the rolling slope of the pasture towards the barn.

A few minutes later there came from the yard a wild screeching and cackling of the hens, followed by a trampling rush and agonized bleating.  The old woman half rose from her chair, but sank back instantly, her face creased with a spasm of pain, for she was crippled by rheumatism.  The girl dropped her big wooden spoon on the floor and rushed to the window that looked out upon the yard.  Her pale face went paler with horror, then flushed with wrath and pity; and a fierce light flashed into her wide blue eyes.

“It’s lynxes!” she cried, snatching up the wooden spoon and darting for the door.  “And they’ve got one of the sheep!  Oh, oh, they’re tearing it!”

“Melindy!” shouted the old woman, in a voice of strident command-such a compelling voice that the girl stopped short in spite of herself.  “Drop that fool spoon and get the gun!”

The girl dropped the spoon as if it had burned her fingers, and looked irresolutely at the big duck-gun hanging on the log wall.  “I can’t fire it!” she exclaimed, shaking her head.  “I’d be scared to death of it!”

But even as the words left her mouth, there came another outburst of trampling and frantic clamour from the yard.  She snatched up the little, long-handled axe which leaned beside the door-post, threw the door wide open, and with a pitying cry of “Oh! oh!” flew forth to the rescue of her beloved sheep.

“Did you ever see the like of that?” muttered the old woman, her harsh face working with excitement and high approbation.  “Scairt to death of a gun-and goes out to fight lynxes all by herself!”

And with painful effort she began hitching herself and the big chair across the floor, seeking a position where she could both reach the gun and command a view through the wide-open door.

When Melindy, her heart aflame with pity for the helpless ewes, rushed out into the yard, she saw one woolly victim down, kicking silently on the bloodstained snow, while a big lynx, crouched upon its body, turned upon her a pair of pale eyes that blazed with fury at the interruption to his feast.

The other sheep were foundered helplessly in the deep snow back of the well-except one.  This one, which had evidently been headed off from the flock, and driven round to the near side of the watering-trough before its savage enemy overtook it, was not half a dozen paces from the cabin door.  It was just stumbling forward upon its nose, with a despairing baa-a-a! while the second and larger lynx, clinging upon its back, clutched hungrily for its throat through the thick, protecting wool.

On ordinary occasions the girl was as timid as her small, pale face and gentle blue eyes made her look.  At this crisis, however, a sort of fury of compassion swept all fear from her heart.

Like the swoop of some strange bird, her skirts streaming behind her, she flung herself upon the great cat, and aimed a lightning blow at his head with her axe.  In her frail grip the axe turned, so that the brute caught the flat of it instead of the edge.

Half-stunned, he lost his hold and fell with a startled pfiff on the snow, while his victim, bleeding, but not mortally hurt, ran bleating towards the rest of the flock, where they floundered, stupidly helpless, in three feet of soft snow.

The next moment the baffled lynx recovered himself, and faced the girl with so menacing a snarl that she hesitated to follow up her advantage, but paused, holding the axe in readiness to repel attack.

For a few seconds they faced each other so, the girl and the beast.  Then the pale, beast eyes shifted under the steady, dominating gaze of the blue human ones; and at last, with a spitting growl, which ended in a hoarse screech of rage, the big cat bounded aside and whisked behind the well-house.  The next moment it was again among the sheep, where they huddled incapable of a struggle.

Again the girl sprang to the rescue; and now, because of that one flash of fear which had deprived her of her first advantage, her avenging wrath was fiercer and more resolute than before.  This time, as she darted upon the enemy, she gave an involuntary cry of rage, piercing and unnatural.  At this unexpected sound the lynx, desperate though he was with rage and hunger, lost his courage.

Seeing the girl towering almost over him, he doubled back with a mighty leap, just avoiding the vengeful sweep of the axe, and darted back to the front of the shed, where his mate was now ravenously feasting on her easy prey.

Although the first victim was now past all suffering, being no more a motive for heroism than so much mutton, the girl’s blood was too hot with triumphant indignation to let her think of such an unimportant point as that.  She was victor.  She had outfaced and routed the foe.  She had saved one victim.  She would avenge the other.

With the high audacity of those who have overcome fear, she now, with a hysterical cry of menace, ran at the two lynxes, to drive them from their prey.

The situation which she now confronted, however, was altogether changed from what had gone before.  The two lynxes were together, strong in that alliance which they had formed for purpose of battle.  They were fairly mad with famine-or, indeed, they would never have ventured on the perilous domains of man.

Moreover, they were in possession of what they held to be their lawful prey-a position in defence of which all the hunting tribes of the wild will fight against almost any odds.  As they saw their strange adversary approaching, the hair stood straight up along their backs, their little tails puffed to bottle brushes, their ears lay flat back on their heads, and they screeched defiance in harsh unison.  Then, as if by one impulse, they turned from their prey and crept stealthily towards her.

They did not like that steady light in her blue eyes, but they felt by some instinct that she was young and unstable of nerve.  At this unexpected move on their part the girl stopped short, suddenly undecided whether to fight or flee.

At once the lynxes stopped also, and crouched flat, tensely watching, their claws dug deep into the hard-trodden snow so as to give them purchase for an instant, powerful spring in any direction.

In the meantime, however, the crippled old woman within doors had not been idle.  Great of spirit, and still mighty of sinew for all her ailment, she had managed to work the weight of the heavy chair and her own solid bulk all the way across the cabin floor.  Being straight in front of the door, she had seen almost all that happened; and her brave old berserk heart was bursting with pride in the courage of this frail child, whom she had hitherto regarded with a kind of affectionate scorn.

The Griffises of Nackawick and Little River had always been sizable men, men of sinew and bulk, and women tall and ruddy; and this small, blue-eyed girl had seemed to her, in a way, to wrong the stock.  But she was quick to understand that the stature of the spirit is what counts most of all.

Now, in this moment of breathless suspense, when she saw Melindy and the two great beasts thus holding each other eye to eye in a life and death struggle of wills, her heart was convulsed with a wild fear.  In the spasm of it she succeeded in lifting herself almost erect, and so gained possession of the big duck-gun, which her son Jake, now away in the lumber woods, always kept loaded and ready for use.  As she cocked it and settled back into her chair, she called in a piercing voice-

“Don’t stir one step, Melindy!  I’m going to shoot!”

The girl never stirred a muscle, although she turned pale with terror of the loud noise which was about to shock her ears.  The two lynxes, however, turned their heads, and fixed the pale glare of their eyes upon the figure seated in the doorway.

The next moment came a spurt of red flame, a belch of smoke, a tremendous report that seemed as if it must have shattered every pane of glass in the cabin windows.  The bigger of the two lynxes turned straight over backward and lay without a quiver, smashed by the heavy charge of buckshot with which Jake had loaded the gun.  The other, grazed by a scattering pellet, sprang into the air with a screech, then turned and ran for her life across the snow, stretching out like a terrified cat.

With a proud smile the old woman stood the smoking gun against the wall and straightened her cap.  For perhaps half a minute Melindy stood rigid, staring at the dead lynx.  Then, dropping her axe, she fled to the cabin, flung herself down with her face in her grandmother’s lap, and broke into a storm of sobs.

The old woman gazed down upon her with some surprise, and stroked the fair, fluffy head lovingly as she murmured:  “There, there!  There’s nothing to take on about!  Though you be such a little mite of a towhead, you’ve got the grit, you’ve got the grit, Melindy Griffis.  It’s proud of you I am, and it’s proud your father’ll be when I tell him about it.”

Then, as the girl’s weeping continued, and her slender shoulders continued to twist with her sobs, the rugged old face that bent above her grew tenderly solicitous.

“There, there!” she murmured again. “’Tain’t good for you to take on so, deary.  Hadn’t you better finish beating up the pancakes before the batter spiles?”

Thus potently adjured, although she knew as well as her grandmother that there was no immediate danger of the batter spoiling, the girl got up, dashed the back of her hand across her eyes with a little laugh, closed the door, got out another spoon from the table drawer, and cheerfully resumed her interrupted task of mixing pancakes.  And the sheep, having slowly extricated themselves from the deep snow behind the well-house, huddled together, with heads down, in the middle of the yard, fearfully eyeing the limp body which lay before the shed.